Reading Diary: what day is it again?

I’ve read seven books since my last confession reading diary entry, and I can’t keep track of days anymore, and I also can’t write a soooper long review of every single one of them, despite them having been almost universally extraordinary. Here we go with a roundup, anyway.

cover2Our Homesick Songs, by Emma Hooper: I didn’t read Hooper’s debut, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, but I gather that Our Homesick Songs shares with it a lyrical but straightforward prose style. It reads with the simplicity, and the judiciously applied repetition, of a child’s fable—but don’t take this to mean that the book is naive or twee. Finn Connor is growing up in an isolated Newfoundland fishing village in the 1990s; his father, Aidan, was a fisherman, and his mother, Martha, used to make nets. But the fish are gone, the island is dying, and Aidan and Martha must take turns working hundreds of miles away on the mainland, a month at a time. Finn’s older sister Cora tries to feed her thirst for adventure by transforming every abandoned house on the island into a representation of a different country, but it’s not enough and soon she strikes out on her own. Struggling with his sister’s abandonment and the difficulty of his parents’ situation, Finn assigns himself the task of bringing the fish back to his home waters. Our Homesick Songs is suffused with the Irish ballads that Newfoundland fishermen sing, and with a sense of deep melancholy; Hooper comes down firmly on the side of family love as one of the few forces that can withstand so much loss. It’s a book with a core of sorrow, wrapped in gentleness.

cover132346-mediumSocial Creature, by Tara Isabella Burton: Louise is twenty-nine and living in New York, barely keeping her head above water—and her time is running out. Between barista shifts and SAT tutoring hours, she can live, but she has no time to write, or think, or do anything other than survive. All that changes when she meets Lavinia: golden, fabulously wealthy, deeply romantic, alarmingly charismatic. So when Lavinia dies—not a spoiler; we know it almost from the beginning—what’s Louise going to do? Can she…perhaps…keep fooling everyone?

I’ve said on social media before now that the genius of Social Creature is in Tara Isabella Burton’s depiction of someone who is poor, not all that young, without a safety net, and terrified. Louise is the dark side of renter culture, of moving to the city without a dime; she’s all the New York stories you never hear, all the millennials who have nothing and no one. Her characterisation is the bedrock of this book. We need to be convinced by her slide into desperation; her sins need to seem merely venal to us because we understand her. They do, and we do, and that, more than anything, is why people have been comparing this to Tartt and Highsmith: because Burton is at the same level of play when it comes to characterisation, and because she understands that, at bottom, she’s writing a book about money, and about the awful things that people do when they’re afraid of life without it. (Lavinia, incidentally, is a fantastic creation: the pretentiousness of her constant Instagram posts featuring quotes by Rimbaud, and the sinisterness of her history with other young women like Louise, is achieved gradually, but insistently. She’s a wonderfully horrible antagonist.)

cover3Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans: Mattie Simpkin fought for women’s suffrage. She was arrested, imprisoned, force-fed, and maltreated. Now, women have the vote, and she’s rattling around her house in Hampstead with her friend Florrie Lee (known to all as The Flea), looking for something meaningful to do with the rest of her life. The reappearance of an old friend from suffrage days—now married and espousing Fascism—prompts Mattie to start a group for girls that promotes imagination and curiosity (and a bit of self-defense), but not everyone is in favour… Old Baggage is, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody marvelous. The tagline is “What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?”, and there’s a real sense of frustrated potential in the book, suggested not just by Mattie’s stagnation but by Evans’s delicate outlining of class issues. (Mattie’s first recruit is her young maid, who comes to her after being fired from a job at the first-class ladies’ cloakroom in St Pancras for having a sty, which might offend the ladies. Her feelings about being made to run about in the rain are initially, let us say, mixed.) The downside of Mattie’s forceful character is a tendency to trample, which Evans acknowledges; there is also a ballast of personality in the form of The Flea, who works as a health visitor, tackling poverty and inequality in places that Mattie, for all her fire and dedication, cannot reach. Old Baggage is wonderfully nuanced, both in its rage and in its understanding of who can and can’t afford rage in the first place.

61iucjvvmwl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Sea and Summer, by George Turner: In his Clarke Award-winning novel, Turner imagines a not-too-distant future (2041) ravaged by climate change. In Australia, the social gap has widened into a chasm: on one side, the Sweet, who retain jobs where most employment has been taken over by automation, and on the other, the Swill, the 99.9% who mostly live crammed into tower blocks and at the mercy of the State. The plot, which is slightly too slow-moving for its own good, at least at the beginning, concerns a conspiracy to speed up population control and a family whose fortunes leave them in a curious limbo between Sweet and Swill. But it’s Turner’s vision of the future that really startles. You can see the effect of his own times (he was writing in 1987, and the Swill system of supermarkets and vouchers is reminiscent of Soviet-era department stores; characters talk a lot about “the greenhouse effect”, a term that has mostly gone out of fashion now). Yet many of his imaginings about the medium-term effects of climate change are prescient: constant flooding, toxic groundwater, the aforementioned takeover of most industries by automation, and an offensively huge income gap are issues that we’re all talking about now, with increasing urgency. When Turner was writing, few politicians seemed even to be aware of climate change, let alone willing to talk about it publicly. The Sea and Summer is a less pessimistic portrayal than some (its framing story is set in a future beyond the Sweet/Swill time, when the planet is cooling again and parts of humanity have survived), and its prescription for social healing is education: the development of “new men”, neither Sweet nor Swill, who teach themselves the information they need in order to survive a changing planet. It’s an approach that has something to teach our age.

51wwwsztqml-_sx324_bo1204203200_Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss: A deceptively short book, almost a novella at 150 pages, with a core of menace. Ghost Wall follows Silvie, the daughter of a bus driver whose love for Ancient British history is tinged with racism and nationalism. He has brought Silvie and her mother on a trip to Northumberland to live as Iron Age peoples did, but their campmates—a professor and his students on an “Experiential Archaeology” course—are less devoted to dogmatic historical accuracy, and tensions rise almost at once. We know something terrible is going to happen; how could it not, given Silvie’s father’s propensity towards violence, and the expedition’s growing obsession with the ritual murders that culminated in bog bodies? But Moss takes us there slowly, carefully, building atmosphere (the discomfort of heat without insulated walls or air conditioning; the endless round of finding something to eat, laboriously preparing it, cooking it, eating it, and starting again). It is also a very tightly written book: everything is thematically connected to everything else, which is no mean feat in a text so short, especially one that also includes fine descriptive passages. The first three pages, and the final five, caused a physical reaction in me when I read them: Moss’s evocation of emotional states is that strong, that subtle. I have no hesitation at all in calling Ghost Wall a masterpiece.

4633870306_259x395Crudo, by Olivia Laing: I adore Laing’s nonfiction, and although Crudo is thought-provoking and up-to-the-minute, her first foray into fiction didn’t have the same effect on me. It follows a writer called Kathy, who, the cover blurb says coyly, “may or may not be” Kathy Acker. The reason for this ambiguity is unclear, and if it is meant to be Kathy Acker, the reason for this is unclear too: she died in 1997 in Tijuana, so is Crudo then meant to be the alternate world in which she lives and marries an Englishman, or is the world the reader lives in meant to be the alternate? Are we perhaps meant to be asking these questions? The action takes place in the summer of 2017; like Ali Smith in her Seasons Quartet, Laing is writing almost immediate reportage of current events. Also like Smith, Laing sometimes doesn’t achieve enough of a sense of distance, so that what we get is simply the bludgeoning effect of last year’s news all over again. (Particularly painful to me is the fact that she mentions, two or three times, last summer’s neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, where I grew up. I happened to read this book in a park in Paris, sitting next to my childhood best friend, who was counter-protesting that day; she was punched in the face by a Nazi, and several people she knows were struck by the car that killed Heather Heyer. The past is not.) If Crudo‘s point is that the headlines are awful and it’s hard to live in the world, even when you’re a critically acclaimed white writer with enough spare cash to contemplate buying a second home in the Barbican Centre, well…that’s not news. I can’t deny that it’s smart, or even that it has heart. I’m just not sure what the purpose of the exercise was.

36628420Melmoth, by Sarah Perry: Few, if any, contemporary novelists are doing as much as Sarah Perry is to make Calvinist thought sexy again. (There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.) Her first two novels, and this one, are all suffused with a sense of the reality of sin, although that word is rarely used: perhaps more in Melmoth than elsewhere. And yet the book is also a Gothic romp; it is disturbing and serious, but it’s scattered with delightful ghost-story tropes, starting with an eminent Czech scholar who inherits some papers from an elderly friend who dies at his carrel in Prague’s National Library. They tell the story of Melmoth the Witness, a woman cursed to wander the earth forever, feet bleeding, clad in black, bearing witness to all of the cruelty that humans are capable of displaying towards each other. Helen Franklin, an expat translator who has been punishing herself for twenty years for some nameless crime, comes into possession of the papers, and develops an obsessive interest in the Melmoth story. The novel is intensely atmospheric: you can almost feel the chill of the wind swirling snow on the bridges of Prague, see the jackdaws tilting their observant heads. It also asks enormous questions about morality: is one good deed enough to offset a dozen bad ones? How much atonement is enough? Is atonement necessary, or productive? What Melmoth offers her victims is understanding, but understanding of a very bleak kind: if you have committed a terrible crime, she affirms, no one will ever love or forgive you, so come away with me, wander the earth, at least we can be damned together. It’s a nice metaphor for the sheer indulgence of self-flagellation, the way that martyring yourself allows you to forgo other responsibilities. Perry’s prose is still sometimes too lush for its own good—it occasionally tips over into a style so swooning and wide-eyed as to feel consciously naive—but the combination of creepy ghost story and philosophical inquiry will make Melmoth the most spectacular fireside book, come October.

Thoughts on recent reading: It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a streak of good books, though none of these are out yet, except for the Turner (hooray for reading one title off my backlist!) The final three (Moss, Laing, Perry) were picked for a long weekend in Paris, and I will never stop congratulating myself on the excellence of that decision.

Books of the Year: 2017

This year, so far, I’ve read 175 books. That’s a lot to choose from, but I’ve managed to narrow down my top choices for the year to eleven. These are THE books: the ones I can’t stop thinking about, have been recommending for months, and still get something new from, every time I reconsider them. There were many, many others that I loved and thought were brilliant (they’re listed at the bottom of this post). Some titles have been left off on the grounds of ubiquity: Lincoln in the Bardo, The Underground Railroad and The Power were all incredible books which I adored, but they don’t exactly need any more attention or admiration. These eleven are my absolute hands-down all-stars, and some of them, I think, deserve a bit more love. So here they are.

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  1. For A Little While, by Rick Bass. Bass is criminally unknown in this country. He writes the most beautiful, most complete short stories I’ve ever seen: each one is like a novel, feeling full with incident and characterisation and yet never going on for too long. His geography is the American West and Midwest, but unlike other writers of whom he reminds me (Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy) he is unfailingly humane to his characters. Reading him is an absolute treat. (short review)

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2. Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry. Speaking of McCarthy, Barry’s novel reminded me of a gay-er, more tender and humane and frankly normal, riff on Blood Meridian. Barry too writes about the violence visited upon Native Americans by whites, but he does so in the context of the US Civil War and as part of the love story between his two male protagonists, Thomas McNulty and John Cole. His sentences are stunning, and he absolutely nails the dynamic of silent, undemonstrative love between men.

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3. Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. My initial impression of this stands: it’s like a Graham Greene novel and an Ian Fleming novel had a baby, then left the baby to be raised by the Coen Brothers. Dark, funny, nihilistic and magnificently disdainful of narrative convention, it’s a spy novel set in 1970s Morocco that manages to completely baffle you half a dozen times. The ending is unforgettable. (full review)

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4. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. Of all the books I read this year, this is one of the most sophisticated. Juggling the stories of several young Chinese musicians at Shanghai Conservatory during the Cultural Revolution, it manages to be an overview of twentieth-century Chinese history, a family saga, and an examination of the ethics of making art under tyranny, without ever losing nuances of characterisation. Good though The Power is, this was my favourite to win the Baileys Prize. (short review)

The Fact of a Body

5. The Fact of a Body, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. This is the single book that I wish I had pushed on more people this year. It’s a hard sell, because it is about Marzano-Lesnevich’s investigation of the case of Ricky Langley, who is in prison for molesting and murdering a six-year-old boy. She interweaves his story with her own—including her childhood molestation by her grandfather—and creates a compelling, frightening, beautiful book out of it, tackling the meanings of innocence, of justice and of redemption. I think it is utterly stunning.

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6. Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor. Everyone has been talking about this book. No prize jury has yet seen fit to reward it, which is bonkers; it’s a book with no narrator, which ignores the conventions of the missing-girl genre as well as those of traditional nature writing, resulting in an extraordinarily compelling jigsaw of life in a rural village shaken by tragedy over the course of thirteen years. It takes almost inconceivable skill to write such a thing, and I urge you to pick it up if you haven’t already. (full review)

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7. The Time Of Our Singing, by Richard Powers. This book is absolutely astonishing. Its protagonists are mixed-race (African-American-Jewish) brothers Jonah and Joseph, a concert pianist and an operatic tenor, but it is so much more than an insider’s classical music novel; it is ambitious enough to take on twentieth-century American history, inter-racial marriage, deep questions of belonging and vocation and family and home, and Powers simply writes so intelligently and thoughtfully. (It will also give you a whole Spotify playlist of stuff to listen to, if that’s your jam.) It is now on my shelf of Books To Save From Fire. Can’t say better than that.

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8. It, by Stephen King. Rarely, if ever, have I been so pleasantly surprised by a book. King’s exploration of small-town horror and mundane evil is over a thousand pages long, but, reader, they will fly by, I promise you. His sexual politics are awkward and dated, but you can tell he was trying, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another author who—at his best—is so damn readable while still keeping rhythm and flow in his prose. Make time for this book. (full review)

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How about this cover. Maybe my favourite of the year.

9. Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer. The sci-fi book I have been recommending to everyone who doesn’t like sci-fi. Set in an industrially ravaged future city menaced by an enormous flying bear (go with it), it tells the story of scavenger Rachel, who lives with her partner Wick in an abandoned tower block, and who finds a small lump of biotech one day on her searches. She takes it home and names it Borne, and quickly finds that the extent of Borne’s abilities—and his true nature—are way beyond her expectations. It’s a lot of things rolled into one: a suspense thriller, a mother-and-child story, a tale of friendship, a sort of romance. VanderMeer’s imagination, and ability to translate his ideas into strong visuals through prose, is peerless.

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10. The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell. In the same way, I imagine, as the medical profession thanks its various divinities for Theodore Dalrymple, Henry Marsh, and Adam Kay, so are booksellers offering orisons for the work of Shaun Bythell. At last, someone who is lifting the curtain on the ridiculous/rude/implausible/plain stupid things, customers, and situations that booksellers deal with daily. And you don’t have to be in the industry to appreciate the man’s witty misanthropy. We keep selling out of this in the bookshop, sometimes within the same day of a fresh delivery.

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11. Dodgers, by Bill Beverly. This is one of those books that you almost cannot talk about, because to do so is to disturb the complex feelings of awe and sorrow and emptiness and fullness that settle, all at the same time, upon you once you finish it. It is indisputably a crime novel, but oh it is so much more. East, our protagonist, is a fifteen-year-old lookout at an LA crack house. He fucks up, and is given a chance to redeem himself: take a roadtrip with some other fuck-ups, and his preternaturally brutal younger brother Ty, to assassinate a federal judge in Wisconsin. There is so much brilliant thinking and writing in this, about brothers and violence and despair and choosing the kind of man you wish to be. It deserves to be a classic.

Other books that were incredible: Every one of these titles is something I would urge you to read as soon as you can. Run, don’t walk. Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway: viciously funny, insanely clever, on the potential consquences of a surveillance society. Sing Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward: a stunning road trip novel; Ward is a modern William Faulkner. A Gentleman In Moscow, by Amor Towles: charming and witty, without ever losing intellectual complexity and nuance. Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain, by Barney Norris: if you loved Reservoir 13, this is your next stop; set in Salisbury and utterly breathtaking. English Animals, by Laura Kaye: beat Ali Smith to being the Most Timely Brexit Novel, and also a beautifully written depiction of class/power imbalance and a lesbian relationship. A Field Guide to Reality, by Joanna Kavenna: the dreamiest, oddest Oxford novel ever, taking in thirteenth-century medieval theories of reality and contemporary metaphysics, and really set apart by fantastic illustrations. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead: you know why. Black and British, by David Olusoga: my new favourite history book, dealing with the presence of free Africans in Britain long before the Empire Windrush. The Wardrobe Mistress, by Patrick McGrath: a compelling ghost story set in the freezing winter of 1947, in London’s seedily glamorous theatre world. 2084, ed. George Sandison: some of the best sci-fi of the year, in the best-edited short story collection of the year. My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent: brutal and stunning, a contemporary McCarthy mixed with Daniel Woodrell. Balancing Acts, by Nicholas Hytner: engaging commentary on plays and staging, as well as some fun name-dropping; worth reading for his analysis of Othello alone. Lincoln In the Bardo, by George Saunders: it really is the most heartbreaking and risk-taking book, very worth reading. Night Sky With Exit Wounds, by Ocean Vuong: my favourite poetry book of the year, lush meditations on sex and heritage and allegiance. The Power, by Naomi Alderman: reading it is a mental game-changer; you won’t think the same way again. Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow: an honest-to-God utopian novel, suggesting that the future might not suck if we work together and use tech productively. Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika: a novella about a sexy, cosmopolitan pensioner, the kind of older woman we should all aim to be.

And I have to stop there—I could go on. Have you read any of these? Have I convinced you to pick up any?

March Superlatives

In March the Baileys Prize longlist was announced and I started duties as part of the prize’s shadow panel, which involved reading all of the longlisted books I hadn’t already gotten to. This amounted to ten (well, nine and a half; I’d already read part of The Lesser Bohemians), plus some reading for work that included a couple of thrillers, some social realism, and some historical fiction. Overall, it’s been a very good, if exhausting, reading month: eighteen books finished. This is productive even for me.

best thriller: Sand, Wolfgang Herrndorf’s newly released novel that combines the black humour of Greene with the social observation of Ian Fleming, but better written. It’s nasty, funny, irresistibly engaging, confusing, and utterly nihilistic. (review)

best surprise: I read Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone because there was a damaged paperback copy at work that we couldn’t sell or return. I was expecting a basic story about dysfunctional, miserable WASPs. Instead, I got a book and a writer capable of articulating the complex motives behind emotions with such precision that I wanted to underline bits—and I never underline bits. Highly, highly recommended.

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cut nearest to the bone: Polly Clark’s debut novel, Larchfield, is about a young pregnant poet, Dora, who moves with her husband to Helensburgh, a small community in Scotland. W.H. Auden, she learns, used to teach at the local school. When Dora has the baby, a combination of neighbourly malice, loneliness, and loss of personal identity drives her to seek solace in learning about Auden’s experiences in Helensburgh. Curiously, neither working at Mumsnet nor talking to friends with babies has brought home to me as clearly as Larchfield did what a thoroughly frightening, isolating, relentless undertaking motherhood is. It seriously, seriously scared me about having children. (I think there is a longer post in this—in how fiction represents motherhood, and in how that particular thematic obsession in literature by and about women is received by women like me—young, childless, starting to wonder—but I’m leaving it for now.)

solidest thriller: Being the most solid of something is not the same as being the best at something, but Jane Harper’s The Dry is a good example of a crime novel that will please pretty much everyone. It is what people usually mean when they say “well-written”: nothing clunks or stands out; the plot is gory enough to be interesting without relying on the torture porn that seems to be the crime genre’s stock-in-trade these days; the villain is believable, and you don’t see the reveal coming from a mile away. Also, it’s set in a small Australian farming community, which is a fairly unusual setting and gives the book a sense of uniqueness. If you like decent crime, pick it up.

Mantel for the easily distracted: Sarah Dunant’s take on Renaissance Italy and the Borgias, In the Name of the Family. I found that she covers much of the same thematic ground as Mantel does—autocratic power, the role of the church in government, moral compromise in exchange for a measure of safety—but does so with a little more zip to her plotting. Highly recommended. (review)

most meh: I feel bad about saying this. There’s nothing wrong with The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain’s Baileys Prize-longlisted novel about a young boy growing up in post-war Switzerland and his lifelong friendship with talented pianist Anton. It just felt aimless. The writing is very lucid and the characterisation sympathetic, but it faded from memory more and more as I compared it to other longlisters. (review)

best Shakespeare rewrite: Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. This is, without a doubt, the most successful installment of the Hogarth Shakespeare project so far, not least because Atwood acknowledges the existence of her source material (The Tempest) within her novel, and thus is allowed to write a book that stands on its own and can explicitly examine The Tempest’s preoccupations. Not Atwood’s best novel, but really good for Shakespeare nerds. (review)

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best reread: I got ill over a weekend and read American Gods by Neil Gaiman all over again, and it was great. It’s still the best of his books, I think (maybe a close contender with Neverwhere; I’d have to read the latter again to decide.) His take on modern gods—the sharp businessman Mr. Wednesday (Odin), the dapper and shrewd Mr. Nancy (Anansi), undertakers Jacquel and Ibis (Egyptian underworld gods Anubis and Thoth)—remains fresh and clever, and he conjures the menace of Americana like no other author I know.

most cute: This is definitely damning with faint praise, I’m afraid. I did like Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door; her portrayal of two elderly, crotchety neighbour ladies, one white and one black, is irresistibly charming, and she does engage with serious political and historical ideas. But the flavour the book left in my mouth was The Help meets Alexander McCall Smith, where people are mildly chastised for their prejudice but mostly let off the hook, and everything is okay at the end. I wanted more than that. (review)

most intelligent: Pretty much all of the books I read this month were intelligent, so this is kind of a crap category. But Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien, engages on such a high level with questions of ethics and art-making and agency in Mao’s China that it leaves much of its competition in the dust. I can’t help feeling a Baileys win would be somehow unfair (it’s already won the Giller, and been Booker Prize-shortlisted; let someone else have a go), but it would be very richly deserved. (review)

hardest punch to the gut: The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Alderman takes a simple premise—what if girls and women had the ability to discharge electricity from their bodies?—and uses it to explore some of the deepest questions about what human civilisation even is. If Thien is interested in the cerebral, Alderman is all about the fundamental. This book shook me. It’s a big deal. (review)

best sex: Unsurprisingly, Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. Never have I encountered an author who understands so clearly that sex isn’t interesting because of who put what where, but because of who feels what when, and why. In other words, she maps sex as an emotional experience—and she also explores what sex is like when emotions are missing, and isn’t judgmental about it. (review)

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should have been on the Baileys longlist: For all my days, there are some things I will never understand about prize lists. The omission of Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border in 2015 was one of them; the omission of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First this year is another. It’s a short, choppy, odd little novel, just like its subject: Margaret Cavendish, seventeenth-century Duchess of Newcastle and first female science fiction writer in the Western world, as far as we know. I loved it for its utter idiosyncracy—the prose so full of sharp, well-chosen images—for the efficiency with which Dutton sketches Margaret for us (it’s a very short book and by the end of it we know her as we do a dear friend), and for the lack of sentimentality with which she closes it. Seek this out.

most missed opportunity: Little Deaths by Emma Flint is a historical noir that deals with the hideous misogyny of 1960s New York in the context of an investigation into the murders of two children. Flint rouses our fury that the police are so much less interested in really investigating than they are in punishing Ruth Malone, our protagonist, for being separated for her husband and sexually active—but she never makes us feel complicit in that kind of judgment, and if she’d done that, it would have been a more powerful novel. (review)

full marks for ambition: The 700+ page opus from Annie Proulx, Barkskins. Telling the stories of the descendants of René Sel and Charles Duquet from the 1690s to the present day, it also encompasses Manifest Destiny, forest management, racial prejudice, and legacy. It flounders at points, and it’s too damn long, but overall it’s well worth the time. (review)

most classically Womens Prize?: Not that I want to slag off novels about relationships, marriages, infertility, and the staggering hypocrisy of the way society treats men vs. the way it treats women, but this is well-worn ground and exactly the sort of thing the Women’s Prize seems to go for sometimes. Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo’s Nigeria-set novel, covers all these points and introduces a bit of melodrama in the form of death and war. It’s good enough but may turn out to be forgettable. (review)

best find: Mick Herron, whose first entry in the Slough House series of spy thrillers, Slow Horses, isn’t just good for a genre novel—it’s good for any kind of novel. Herron is the Tana French of espionage writers: his grasp of the way language flows is absolute, he trusts his readers, he’s funny, his dialogue is on point. Plus the story—group of disgraced spooks find themselves trying to save a boy whose beheading is scheduled to occur live on the Internet in 48 hours—is a cracker, not least because the details of the boy’s abduction are (not to spoil anything for you) so precisely not what you initially think they are. There are three more in the series thus far, and I’m in it for the long haul.

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most unexpectedly genre-bending: Black Water, Louise Doughty’s first book since the acclaimed Apple Tree Yard. It’s sort of a spy thriller, but the protagonist isn’t a spy; it’s sort of a love story, but the love is complicated by reality and history; it’s sort of a historical political novel, but the present day takes up two-thirds of the book. It’s mostly set in Indonesia and its protagonist is part-Indonesian, part-Dutch, which made a nice change from the Anglo-American-centricity of other books with a similar focus. Doughty too knows how to grip a reader, and knows how to construct a sentence that hangs together and transitions nicely to the next sentence. This is just out in paperback, and I’d highly recommend it.

what’s next: Who knows?! I’m posting my personal Baileys Prize shortlist tomorrow, and the shadow panel is posting our (un)official shortlist choices on Sunday. After that, this project will be more or less wrapped up, and I have well over twenty-five books (reading copies; damaged copies we can’t sell that we’re allowed to take home; etc.) waiting to be prioritised, so it’s not like I’m out of choices…

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 2: Thien and Alderman

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

do-not-say-we-have-nothingDo Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is comprised of nested narratives. Li-ling (or Marie), in ’90s Toronto Vancouver (thanks to eagle-eyed reader Shawn for catching that), is a maths-obsessed teenager whose father has disappeared back to China. They learn that he has committed suicide there, in Hong Kong. Later, a Chinese girl comes to stay with Marie and her mother. Her name is Ai-ming. She is only eighteen, and a political refugee, in trouble for having participated in the uprisings in Tiananmen Square. Her father, now dead, was Marie’s father’s former music teacher. Ai-ming begins telling Marie her family history, but these stories quickly take on a life of their own and the framing device drops out for chapters at a time, leaving us fully immersed in the lives of sisters Big Mother Knife and Swirl; then in the lives of their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, and of Sparrow’s student and best friend Kai.

The book spans seventy years in the middle of the twentieth century, during which time China underwent traumatic political and social change. From the time of the Civil War to the Cultural Revolution, this family is forced to adapt in ways that deny its members love, fulfillment, and security. Most of the book focuses on music: Sparrow is a promising composer, Zhuli a talented young violinist, Kai a pianist. All three of them attend Shanghai Conservatory. When the denouncements ramp up and the witch-hunts for counter-revolutionaries increase in the ’70s, the pressure to play only certain kinds of music, and in a certain style, becomes nearly unbearable, and the three young people bend or snap in different ways according to who they are.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the most intellectually sophisticated book of the longlistees that I’ve read, so far: the questions it poses and the assertions that it makes about the ideology of making art are subtly framed and yet don’t detract from the actual story. Thien faces the fact that music and art in general cannot save you— that “poetry makes nothing happen”—and yet when Zhuli thinks “It belongs to me”, she recognises that you can hold onto music or beauty, you can claim it, and its significance comes from the assertion you make of its value to yourself. The number zero is also significant: Marie, the current-day Chinese-Canadian mathematician, talks about how zero can represent a value of both everything and nothing. It’s not hard to see the links between the idea of zero and the value of creativity in a society that hates and fears it. To write a Western-influenced sonata or to play Bach like an angel is worth nothing in post-Cultural Revolution China. And yet it is also worth everything

SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD – Thien achieves this depth of thought, this endless wrestling with value and the ethics of making art, while maintaining the reader’s investment in her multiple characters and their fates. When Zhuli kills herself, we care terribly; when Sparrow, near the end of his life, begins to engage politically, we see how hard it is for him because he has survived awful loss only by cultivating indifference. And she doesn’t do it through simplistic structure, either: on the page, it looks simple—there are no chapter headings telling us what time we’re in, for instance—but it develops in complexity as it follows this enormous tree of extended family and friends. Thien ensures that we don’t lose sight of our main characters, and the development of the framing story into part of the actual narrative near the end of the book is seamless, which is a lot harder to do than it looks.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is very affecting and deeply intelligent. So far, it is my favourite to win overall; I would be surprised if another longlisted book came near it, at least on its own terms.

41rubuzrhzlThe Power, by Naomi Alderman

One book that might challenge it—though with a very different flavour—is The Power. I am indebted to Abigail Nussbaum for helping me sort out my whirling, love-and-terror-addled thoughts on this book. Her review of it, at Strange Horizons, is really the place to go if you want someone intelligent and critically acute to open up The Power‘s complexities for you. Much of what I write here will be borrowed from that piece.

Everyone, by now, knows the premise of The Power: what if women and girls were suddenly capable of shooting bolts of electricity out of their bodies? As Nussbaum notes, this premise is the sort of thing that it’s easy to run away with in your own head, which sets you up to be disappointed by whatever the writer actually executes. Fortunately I went into The Power with little in the way of preconceptions (not because the premise didn’t excite me but because I hadn’t had the time to think about it much), and I was completely bowled over by it.

There are four strands to the book, four main point-of-view characters. Three of them are women. There’s Roxy, the child of a London crime boss who quickly takes over the business after what becomes known globally as the Day of the Girls; Allie, a fostered and abused girl who hears a “voice” that might be her own survival instinct or might really be the voice of God; Tunde, a Nigerian journalism student who gets the first footage of the Power being used in public, and drops out of college to follow the stories, broadcasting from YouTube; and Margot Cleary, a public servant whose response to the Power clears the way for her meteoric rise to the top of American government.

Critical responses to The Power have mostly been of the who’d-have-thought, women-can-be-just-as-violent-as-men school. It’s true, obviously, but as analysis goes it’s not very deep. Alderman is using gender as a focusing lens, but I don’t think this book is really about gender; if it were, there would be a lot more in the way of retributive justice, and what we get instead is a horrifying breakdown of the comforting cause-and-effect that justifies vigilantism. In the most brutal scene of the book, a gang of women attack a refugee camp full of men in the mountains of Moldova. Tunde, who survives—just—notes the complete absence of sense and logic: these women are not attacking men who’ve wronged them. They are torturing, raping (yes, really, and the way Alderman makes that work is terrifying and illuminating about the fundamental point of rape as an act of war: to humiliate) and killing because they can. And it’s that motive—because you can—that runs through the book. It’s not about gender; it’s about power.

Which makes Alderman’s project, and her book’s ending, a lot more fundamental. The question that The Power asks is: is it even possible for humans to create and exist in an egalitarian society? Or, as Nussbaum puts it in her review, “If you can completely upend the foundations of human civilization and yet end up at exactly the same place, then isn’t there a greater flaw at work? Is there another way, or do there always have to be winners and losers, strong and weak, powerful and powerless?”

There are flaws (fortunately I managed to notice these before reading Nussbaum’s review, though she discusses them more deeply.) One of the most curious omissions in The Power is any discussion of transgender individuals. The electrostatic power in women is biological; it comes from an organ at the base of the throat called the skein. A very, very small number of biological males develop it, too, but they’re seen as freaks and outcasts. Does that mean that most trans women don’t have it? What about trans men? What does that do to their status in society? Racial difference, too, is erased or ignored. From a writer’s point of view, I can see why—there are only so many stories you can tell at one time—but it’s odd, given the book’s fascination with the arbitrary exercise of power, not to include the effects that the Power might have on other forms of societal oppression.

Regardless. The Power is nightmarish and profound and one of the ballsiest books I have read in years. This must be what is meant by “the best of women’s writing”; if it’s not this, this deep engagement with the terms of human civilisation’s very existence, what is it? If it were up to me, I would put it on the shortlist without hesitation.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is published by Granta and is now in paperback; The Power is published by Viking and is available in hardback.

Bailey’s Prize Longlist Reading 1: Tremain, Atwood, Omotoso

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Minor spoilers ahead.

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

9781784700201Gustav Perle lives in Matzlingen, Switzerland, with his beloved Mutti. The second World War has just ended. His father, Erich, is dead – a hero, his Mutti says, but Gustav doesn’t know anything about him, not why he died or what he was like when he was alive. Gustav adores Mutti, but she spends a lot of time ignoring him, or crying. When Anton Zwiebel joins the local kindergarten, Gustav has a friend for the first time in his short life. The rest of Rose Tremain’s poised and beautiful book is dedicated to the story of Anton and Gustav’s friendship, and to the story of the truth of Erich and Emilie Perle’s marriage.

It has been said that The Gustav Sonata is about neutrality, and it is, sort of, but the word I thought of most when I was reading it was “caring”, which is another way of talking about neutrality. The book is intensely focused on care: giving care, receiving care, in the sense of love and attention, is at the heart of Gustav and Anton’s relationship. It is also Gustav’s problem. He is pushed into adulthood early by a lack of care from his mother Emilie (who tells him frequently as a child that he must “master himself”); he is forced into a caregiving role vis-à-vis Anton by Anton’s parents, who are kind to Gustav but surprisingly willing to place the burden of Anton’s emotional well-being on a pre-adolescent’s shoulders. Meanwhile, Gustav’s family history is characterised by a generational withholding of care: Emilie, his mother, was constantly chastised and neglected by her mother, Irma, and the book’s second section, on the Perle marriage, charts the decline of care between two people in a way that illuminates everything about Gustav’s life. Meanwhile, excessive care damages people: Anton is hurt by it – his major adult relationship is passionate, but deeply abusive – and the affair between Erich Perle and his boss’s wife is unhealthy in its obsessiveness.

Tremain plants her thematic seeds carefully and tends them throughout the novel, so that resonances spring up at you as you read. Switzerland’s political neutrality, the destructive neutrality of one human being towards another, and Erich Perle’s rejection of official neutrality in order to save refugees are all tied together. Tremain writes like Kate Atkinson: her prose is accessible and clear without making the treatment of her subject light or superficial. The ending could, I think, be more delicate and also more believable: there is never any sense of sex in Gustav’s life, either before or after the final revelation of Anton’s love, and I think it is a disservice to deny him this. If it’s intentional, it isn’t leaned on enough to make the intention clear. But this is a question of verisimilitude versus thematic coherence – whether something is entirely believable versus whether it reinforces the novel’s general concerns – and so my reservation is pretty minor.

Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

29245653Atwood’s novel is the fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that seeks to “retell” some of the most famous of the plays as novels set in the present day. Some of these have been more successful than others; Atwood’s, I think, is the best so far. The reason it works is because she fully acknowledges the existence of The Tempest inside the world of her novel, which frees her: she doesn’t have to pretend, like Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson, that the uncanny similarities between her characters and the plot of Shakespeare’s play is mere happenstance. She can delve right into those parallels, explore them explicitly, instead of making us wonder why no one in the book has yet noticed how unlikely this all is.

Her Prospero is Felix Phillips, a disgraced and deposed theatre festival director now going by the name Mr. Duke and teaching a theatre course in the local prison. Miranda – brilliantly – is dead (because the late plays are all about dead daughters, losing daughters, coming to terms with grief); she died of meningitis as a three-year-old, a horribly plausible scenario. After twelve years of living in hiding from his former associates, Felix chooses his method of revenge: he will stage his own production of The Tempest at the prison, and take down the men who betrayed him—now high-ranking politicians—along the way.

Whether this revenge fantasy would actually work or not (and I admit it would rely heavily on excellent timing, which usually doesn’t work out in real life), you have to admire the way Atwood takes on the play. Felix walks his convict players through The Tempest with a thorough thoughtfulness that I found genuinely illuminating. It might, I suppose, be considered a little academic, but the tone is always that of an interested and informed person talking to other interested people; Felix neither talks down to nor bamboozles his actors, and by extension, he doesn’t do these things to us. The Tempest is a play uniquely well-suited to prison. Felix and Atwood allow us to watch the dawning awareness, among the convict-actors, of the story’s relevance, and it is a gorgeous, shiver-inducing thing. The only major concern I had was when Atwood ventriloquised the rap songs that the actors invent to make the play more contemporary: would it sound like a White Lady Author “doing” street? Answer: sort of, but mostly, I think, because raps look awful written down. When I did them in my head, they…well, they worked. Though I don’t envy whoever does the audiobook.

The Woman Next Door, by Yewande Omotoso

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Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are next-door neighbours in an upmarket area of Cape Town. Hortensia is black, married to a white British husband; Marion is white (and racist, which we’ll learn about later.) They are eighty years old, they have both run successful businesses—Hortensia as a textile designer, Marion as an architect—and they hate each other. The Woman Next Door is an account, if not quite of how they become friends, then of how they come to hate each other a little bit less.

Marion’s racism is breathtaking. She’s a woman of her generation—apartheid was her normal. Her housekeeper, Agnes, is a black South African who is expected to eat from separate containers and use separate (and inferior) toilet paper. Agnes spends no energy in contesting any of this; she simply, quietly, gets on with the business of being a real human with some level of agency. When Marion eventually discovers that Agnes has stopped using the toilet paper bought for her, she is shocked and dismayed, until Agnes reveals that she’s simply paying for her own bogroll. But Marion’s relief is shortlived: it turns out that Agnes has started buying better-quality stuff than Marion allows herself. This scene is the sort of thing Omotoso excels at, the delicate dance of social oneupmanship. She tells a little bit too much more than she shows, though I think that’s a common misstep with social comedy.

The biggest stylistic hiccup with The Woman Next Door is the occasional register clash, or what feels like it. Omotoso uses words like “peeved” and “messed up”, which sound either euphemistic or childish, or both, and represent a linguistic cautiousness I wouldn’t expect from two old women who, we’re told, can “cut the legs off people” with their words. In general, on the sentence level, this book isn’t going to set you aflame. I do think its political content is sly and significant; the kinds of people who will read a book blurbed by Helen Simonson are not necessarily going to respond well to polemic, but Omotoso does slip in commentary. There’s a subplot about reparations in the form of a land claim (which I’d have liked a lot more of) and another about the descendant of a slave who lived on the farm where the neighbourhood now stands. I’m pleased that these points are present; they might find an audience that would otherwise have missed them. It’s also a book about old women, and about friendship, and we don’t get many books about old women; as Naomi said, more please. I like it fine, and will probably recommend it to quite a few bookshop customers. I’m just not sure it’s a shortlister.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and EricThe Gustav Sonata is published by Vintage and is now in paperback; Hag-Seed is published by Hogarth and is available in hardback; The Woman Next Door is also published by Vintage and is also now in paperback.

Baileys Prize Longlist 2017

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Aahhh, the Baileys Prize longlist announcement! Its timing is a boon to readers and booksellers alike: at the beginning of March, the next year’s big hitters mostly aren’t out yet (the first round will come in May) and last November’s surge of pre-Christmas publications has probably already been devoured by the serious and/or professional reader. March in books is like March in vegetables; you just have to lump it til spring starts. Except for the Baileys Prize, which provides a much-needed shot of excitement and, sometimes, impetus to check out titles you may have overlooked.

This year I am following the prize as part of the Shadow Panel, along with Naomi, Eric, Antonia, and Meera. This was also the first year in which I recognized every single title on the longlist, which is probably due to the fact that I’ve been paying ever closer attention to books news.

It is not as diverse as it might look. Most of the listed authors are established; only three are non-white. I’m not sure what constitutes a “small” or “independent” publisher – Serpent’s Tail are independent but have serious literary bona fides, as have Granta – but it’s interesting that none of these publishers are new to me either. In the past there has generally been at least one or two wild cards; none of these entries surprise me hugely.

What surprises a little bit is a host of absences: Idaho by Emily Ruskovitch. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton. Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. I suppose this only goes to show that the state of English-language writing by women is flourishing – the longlist has 16 books on it instead of 12, which also supports this theory – but still, their absence is notable. (Especially given the presence on the list of Barkskins, which has provoked extremely tepid reactions from virtually every book person I know.)

Most appalling in its absence is Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. What possible excuse can there be for leaving it off?

Anyway. I’ve read six and a half of the longlistees (including most of the big ones, hurrah!), which is good because we only have three weeks to the shortlist announcement. The full list is below; links are to my reviews, where they exist.

Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò (Canongate) – read after announcement; review

The Power by Naomi Alderman (Viking) – read after announcement; short review

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (Hogarth) – read after announcement; short review

Little Deaths by Emma Flint (Picador) – read after announcement; review

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (Serpent’s Tail)

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant (Virago)

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber) – read after announcement; review

Midwinter by Fiona Melrose (Corsair) – reviewed in a Superlatives post

The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan (4th Estate) – reviewed in a Superlatives post

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus) – read after announcement; short review

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill (riverrun) – tried to start three times, couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it, ended up abandoning

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) – read twice, and discussed in a Superlatives post

Barkskins by Annie Proulx (4th Estate) – read after announcement; review

First Love by Gwendoline Riley (Granta) – reviewed at Shiny New Books

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (Granta) – read after announcement; short review

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus) – read after announcement; short review


Which book are you most excited for? Is there a book I haven’t read that you think I should get to without delay? Any notable omissions or inclusions you’re furious about?

November Superlatives

I’ve sort of forgotten about the end of November. It seems to have been an infinite month, on and on and on, late nights, late shifts, weekends alone or away. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything, especially given that things are only going to get busier at the pub from now until New Year. I’ve read twelve books this month, though—some of them quite long. I won’t lie, there was definitely some post-election comfort reading going on.

most disproportionately affecting: By size, I mean. The playscript for Camilla Whitehill’s play Where Do Little Birds Go (which I reviewed at Litro) takes a quarter of an hour to read, but the play is haunting. A one-woman show that dramatises the experiences of Lucy Fuller, a barmaid kidnapped by the Kray twins in the 1960s, it’s spare, effective, and completely engrossing.

best glimpse of another world: Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, his writings about the years he spent in Southeast Asia collecting specimens of birds, insects and mammals. He’s thoughtful and reflective, but still a product of time; reading his ruminations about the “natural character” of the indigenous people is an insight into a mindset that may not be cruel but is still limited. His writings on landscape are beautiful.

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most obscurely disappointing: There is nothing at all wrong with Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter. I just wanted more… juice, I said to Rebecca when she reviewed it, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. The story of a father and son struggling with the decade-old loss of mother and wife Cessie, it’s a quiet novel about quiet men, whose thoughts Melrose infiltrates and describes fluently. The writing is good. I can’t complain about it. I think it has been the victim of Twitter hype.

most relevant: The Dark Circle, Linda Grant’s new novel, which takes in the beginnings of the NHS and the global social changes of the 1950s, and leaves us believing that the strength of the individual character is our best hope. I reviewed it just after the US election and was comforted by its vision of a new, happy, modern life, despite the constant presence of the past.

warm bath books: The US election was hard. I woke up at eight the morning after, checked my phone, and began to cry, at which point the Chaos made me return to bed. I cried and demanded to be held and cried some more, went back to sleep for a few hours, woke up, cried again. I was very glad I had the day off. I read the second and third of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It had been years since I’d read them and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are not as intellectually antagonistic as I remembered; they are instead profoundly humane books, framing the human mind and human evolution as a source of wonder and power. They are soothing without being mindless or saccharine, and just about perfect.

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weirdest: I think Shena Mackay just writes weird books, and her novel Dunedin, though the first of hers that I’ve read, is probably pretty representative. It’s a split timeframe—the first half is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand; the second half follows the descendants of our original protagonists in southeast London—but the New Zealand bit is short-changed in the word count, and the plot of the south London bit has no obvious centre. She writes the same kind of tactile, color-and-light-filled prose as A.S. Byatt, though, so I liked it anyway.

most potential: This is, I admit, a backhanded compliment indeed. Stephanie Victoire’s debut story collection, The Other World, It Whispers, addresses issues of gender and sexuality through a fantasy lens that is fueled by a huge imagination. I also, unfortunately, found it under-edited and uneven. Swings and roundabouts…

second most potential: Wendy Jones’s collection of interviews with English women about their sex lives (helpfully entitled The Sex Lives of English Women) is, yes, totally fascinating. She has a decent spread of age, class, race and preferences—there is a 19-year-old devout Muslim, a 33-year-old ex-Buddhist nun, a 94-year-old former Land Girl who recalls having sex by the side of the road—but I wanted a little more structure; the chapters read as transcriptions of one half of a conversation, which is a bit disorienting, as it sometimes is in magazine interviews.

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best impulse buy: I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a book on the strength of one review, but I did it for Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, an anthology from The Economist whose subtitle tells you all you need to know. The museums range from the Pitt Rivers in Oxford to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, via the Frick Collection, the ABBA Museum, Kelvingrove in Glasgow, and many more. The authors range from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Don Paterson, Ali Smith to Jacqueline Wilson. The essays are elegiac, descriptive, lyrical, hilarious, strange. A total treasure box.

best debut: Eric Beck Rubin’s novel School of Velocity, ONE Pushkin Press’s new release. The control Rubin exercises in this tale of charisma, friendship, music and obsession is worthy of a veteran novelist. I’m very interested to read his next book.

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big fat fucking awesome book: C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings has divided opinion since its release. Me, I like it. A chunkster indeed, but its tale of Thoroughbred horse racing, interwoven with a Southern family saga and the attendant agonies of racial prejudice right through to the present day, makes it all forgivable: its flaws are immense because its ambitions are immense, as someone once said of Dickens. I read it on many trains over about three days, and was delighted to have had it with me to pass the time.

up next: I’m reading Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children and loving it. I loved The Tidal Zone, so this is hardly surprising, but still.

 

School of Velocity, by Eric Beck Rubin

There were also things we didn’t talk about, not even to each other. The things we couldn’t explain, but just did.

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~~here be (one or two) spoilers~~

Jan de Vries is a student at Sint Ansfried, an elite performing arts high school, when he meets Dirk Noosen. He is a pianist; Dirk is an actor. “I saw him several times before I even knew his name,” he tells us. “He was like a new word that, once learned, you heard spoken everywhere.” That is the reader’s cue to be aware that this book is going to be about charisma, about power, about the ways in which the charismatic behave that make them, at best, dubious idols. It’s also, because of this, highly relevant to the book I’m currently writing, which also wrestles with questions of charisma, school days (or adolescence in general) and power games.

Well. Reading School of Velocity has made me think two things: a) thank God someone else has written a book about this, it’s obviously possible; and b) bollocks, maybe I shouldn’t bother; how can I improve on this?

For this review I shall take a leaf out of Naomi‘s book and write, overtly, about what made this book so effective for me.

Thing one: the setting

Reviewers talk about setting a lot; often, I think, more than is necessary, because setting is very rarely “a character in its own right”. If you’re talking Wuthering Heights or, I dunno, Wolf Hall, or Ordinary People, then yeah, sure, but otherwise, setting isn’t always that big a deal. What I liked very much about School of Velocity is the mysteriously seamless way in which Rubin places the action in the Netherlands. He doesn’t drop a whole lot of place names, but he situates his characters in their provincial home town, and later in the city of Maastricht, so coolly and confidently that I thought he must hail from thereabouts. Evidently he doesn’t, which makes me wonder how on earth he managed such casually intimate descriptions of the place.

Thing two: the pacing

Really good authors know how to fast-forward. Rubin covers whole years of friendship in a couple of pages, with smartly structured montage flashbacks like this one:

During the years at Sint Ansfried, I must have had my own classes, spent time alone practising, spent lunches by myself, and I remember leaving Dirk’s house on Saturday afternoons, which means I must have spent the rest of the weekends away from him. But I cannot pick out a memory from those years that does not find Dirk by my side. We spent what felt like years at the movie theatre… We listened to experimental music in record shops and in his room and went to watch bands play in bars and small clubs. We walked every street in Den Bosch, where he lived, and Vught, where we cut classes, something we did with increasing frequency, ducking out of math and languages and going to sit in a cafe to talk, argue, laugh.

When, at the end of the novel, he tells Dirk it’s been thirty years since they saw each other in Maastricht, the reader is as vaguely surprised as Dirk is. Thirty years? Really? Well, that went by quickly.

Thing three: the descriptions of Jan’s illness

Jan and Dirk, as you might have guessed, stop speaking to each other at some point after they graduate from high school. It doesn’t quite happen slowly—they don’t call or write to each other at all during that first term at university. At Christmas, Dirk calls from America to say he’s spending the holiday with his girlfriend, leaving Jan, who’s turned down an invitation from his parents in anticipation of spending time with Dirk, alone on Christmas Day.

For a long time—years—this seems, both to Jan and to us, reasonably normal. Jan meets a girl, Lena, who believes in his playing. His career begins to take off. But he begins to develop strange auditory hallucinations: kettles boiling, buzz saws, roaring waves. The music that he ordinarily hears in his head just before a performance is transformed into something dissonant and violent. It begins to affect his playing. It begins to affect his sanity. He doesn’t tell Lena.

Thing four: the ending

It is, to be short, spot on. Jan’s quest to see Dirk again, to recapture the magic and the headiness and, yes, the romance of their school days, is doomed from the start. The savvy reader knows it, but still hopes, horribly, desperately, pathetically, as Jan hopes, that something can be salvaged from the wreckage. Dirk’s disappointingly ordinary life—his reversion to Sint Ansfried, where he is now the head of the drama department—is our first warning: promises don’t always come true. Potential isn’t always realised. Dirk’s kind of charisma, his flamboyant irreverence, doesn’t necessarily go down well in the real world, the adult world. For Jan to seek it out again and believe that it is the key to his salvation is at best immature; at worst, it romanticises the past in a way that could stunt him for good. Indeed, when he does find and reunite with Dirk, the terms of that meeting are so unexpected that he cannot recover.

Thing five: the title

School of Velocity is the name of a set of piano pieces by Carl Czerny, designed to help train pianists in passage work by exercising them at different tempi. It’s also a clever reference to the games of chicken that Dirk and Jan play on their bikes—who can cycle the furthest with their eyes shut? Dirk claims to be able to count thirteen; Jan only manages twelve. And, not least, it suggests the philosophy that gets Dirk—who is, we suspect, more lonely and conflicted than Jan ever realises—through school and early adulthood. Go faster; be louder; never stop moving. But Dirk doesn’t die young: he burns out. And perhaps it’s Jan, in the end, who suffers most from adhering to the School of Velocity.

It’s a small and compact book, this one, a square shape easily hefted in the hand, slipped into a purse (or, dare I say it, a Christmas stocking). Its subject matter may look obscure—classical piano playing isn’t everyone’s bag—but at its heart, it’s about huge and basic emotions: insecurity, friendship, need, sex. It delivers all of this in elegantly readable prose, efficient and yet deeply moving. I loved it. I hope, this season, it receives the attention it deserves.

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at ONE Pushkin for the review copy. School of Velocity was released in the UK on 21 November.

03. Larry’s Party, by Carol Shields

LarryWhere I read it: eating rhubarb crumble in the kitchen. Not the whole book (and not the whole crumble), but some of both.

This weekend I went to the inaugural Emerald Street Literary Festival, which was fantastic. The first panel was on the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which, as regular readers will know, is something I’m very interested by, and which I’ve been trying to read all the winners of. (Awkwardly constructed sentence, sorry, but can’t think of a way to fix it without splitting it into two sentences, which is boring. Onwards!) This book, Larry’s Party, won that prize in 1998. One of the things that interested me most about the panel at the festival was the series of statistics on women writers and their books. Amid the usual depressing factoids about number of women published vs. shortlisted for prizes, there was this: of those women who are on lists for prizes, the majority of them—I can’t remember the figure, infuriatingly, but it is well above half—have written their books about male protagonists.

Obviously, I thought of Larry’s Party, which I’ve just finished and has the distinction of being one of the few books I’ve ever read that goes really deeply into a man’s head. Larry does things, sure: he’s married twice, he starts out as a florist and becomes a designer of mazes and then a noted landscape designer, he has a son. But it’s what he thinks and feels that Carol Shields writes about, and in that assertion—that men, too, have lives full of emotion, that they suffer from uncertainty and doubt—there’s something that I find oddly comforting. I’ve grown up in an era both of widespread feminism and of reactionary masculinity. That it could be so different forty years ago (Larry is born in 1950; the book starts in 1977) is quietly mindblowing. Shields isn’t just writing about Larry, I don’t think, but about the whole Western world. From 1977 to 1997, a hell of a lot changed for white First World-ers: politics, technology, gender, the amount of distance permitted between private and public lives. You wouldn’t call Larry radical, exactly (his first wife, Dorrie, does all the laundry and the cooking, though his second wife, Beth, is a professor of gender studies.) But he is, quietly, unexpected. His father doesn’t have conversations with him, doesn’t really know what to do with him. He’s a “weedy adolescent” and a tall, not especially sporty man. His degree, from a local community college, is in flower arranging. He spends much of his life experiencing complex, deep, and tender feelings, which he is sadly aware that he doesn’t possess the vocabulary to express. He never becomes a hardened or a defensive man. That reactionary masculinity I talked about earlier, the sort of thing that underpins cultural phenomena from burger-eating contests to rape apologism: that is not present in Larry’s psyche. He is not violent or lecherous or cruel.

Another of the rather excellent things about Larry’s Party is that not much really happens in it. The party at the end is meant to sum up, if you will, everything that’s gone before: all of Larry’s adult life so far, from twenty-seven to forty-seven. The novel chronicles relationships above all: relationships with colleagues, with lovers, with a child, with work and the intellect, with the past. It’s a domestic novel about a man, and when you phrase it like that, this deceptively sedate-seeming book starts to look pretty damn brave.

(I’m not mad keen on the ending, though. Dorrie again? Really? It doesn’t seem in keeping with the realistic gaze of the rest of the book, at all. As far as I’m concerned, it’s Lucy Warkenten whom Larry needs to be with. Maybe Shields thought so too, and wanted us to know that things never do work out the way they ought to.)

Larry’s Party, Carol Shields (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997)

Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

Time is a blind guide.

The above quotation is, I think, a good litmus test for whether or not Fugitive Pieces is your sort of novel. If, after reading it, you nod and sigh and think, “How true. How beautiful. What a lovely sentence that is,” then congratulations, you are not going to have any problems with this book. If, after reading it, you think, “What a lovely sentence that is. …What does it mean?”, then you’d better buckle yourself in, because Fugitive Pieces is full of sentences just like it.

Anne Michaels won the 1997 Women’s Prize for Fiction with this novel. No kitchen sink dramas here: Michaels sets her sights high. Fugitive Pieces is a Holocaust novel, albeit one where the Holocaust itself is elided. Little Jakob Beer is seven years old when his family is murdered in their home by Nazis; he escapes only because he has been playing a game where he hides in a cupboard. After their deaths, he flees through the vast darkness of a Polish forest, sleeping at night in holes that he digs in the ground, eating grass. His final hiding place is a cradle of mud in an archaeological excavation of the ancient town of Biskupin. When he springs from the dirt the next morning, he comes face to face with Athos, a Greek geologist working on the dig. Athos at first thinks he’s a bog boy, preserved in peat like Tollund Man; only when Jakob begins to cry, and the tears crack the mud on his face, does Athos recognize that he’s alive.

There’s a parallel here to what Jakob mentions later in the novel: the way that Nazi vocabularies legitimized the slaughter of the Jews by rendering them non-human. Fugitive Pieces is an extremely self-consciously linguistic book. Language is repeatedly declared to be all-important. Extrapolation of this claim, or evidence to support it, is thin on the ground, but every once in a while Michaels comes out with something like this, which is truly arresting:

Nazi policy was beyond racism, it was anti-matter, for Jews were not considered human. An old trick of language, used often in the course of history. Non-Aryans were never to be referred to as humans, but as “figuren”, “stucke”—”dolls”, “wood”, “merchandise”, “rags”. Human beings weren’t being gassed, only “figuren”, so ethics weren’t being violated. No one could be faulted for burning debris, for burning rags and clutter in the dirty basement of society.

That last sentence is a point at which metaphor is really working, earning its keep. It is a moment where a figure of speech, by being presented as true, causes you to understand the monstrosity of the idea it represents.

Unfortunately, such moments of potency are rare in this book. Michaels is primarily a poet (she’s written one other novel, published in 2009, which appears to have sunk almost without trace), and although I don’t think that poets cannot write good novels, I do think that the strategies of poetry and of prose fiction are very, very different. It is not always easy for a writer accustomed to working with one set of strategies to adopt another. In the case of Fugitive Pieces, this results—among other things—in a style which frequently chooses lyricism and the impression of profundity over genuine, deeply-considered resonance. Athos, the Greek geologist, takes Jakob back to Greece with him, where they wait out the war on Athos’s ancestral island of Zakynthos; here Jakob learns about fossils, about the history of the earth written in its stones, about silent witnesses. It’s quite clear that geology, poetry and the memory of atrocity are meant to braid together, in Jakob’s life and throughout the book. But Michaels never entirely manages it, partly because she never fully delves into what the history of earth and stone, or the history of flesh and death, might mean. There’s no specificity of vocabulary, no recounting of phenomena. Just Jakob’s musings:

It’s no metaphor to feel the influence of the dead in the world, just as it’s no metaphor…to witness the astonishing fidelity of minerals magnetized, even after hundreds of millions of years, pointing to the magnetic pole… We long for place; but place itself longs. Human memory is encoded in air currents and river sediment.

Well, yes and no. It is a metaphor to feel the influence of the dead in the world. The longevity of magnetization is astonishing and beautiful when viewed as another metaphor, but it does not mean that every place “longs”, or at least not in the same way. As for human memory being encoded in river sediment, the mere idea of that being a phenomenon still has nothing to do with the magnetic fields that pull earth and stone, which are what we have just been discussing. It’s a frustrating leap, and one that can’t be excused with the catch-all of “poetic license”, because poetic license can only be invoked when you understand the rules you’re breaking or the principles you choose to ignore.

Land and language: the two things that can isolate immigrants from their new communities, or can bind them together. Michaels does evoke land well: her Greek islands and her hurricane-flooded Toronto swim before our eyes. Slightly more curious is the way that the Holocaust never sweeps Jakob up. He knows that his parents and sister are dead, but he doesn’t understand until he’s much older that they died in a continental-wide convulsion of violence and hate. Living with Athos, he’s almost entirely sheltered from news of the outside world. He never sees piles of bodies, or smells smoke rising from his neighbours’ homes. It’s an odd decision to make, because it means that although he has been touched by tragedy, he’s never really been immersed in it. The Holocaust is an experience he manages, bizarrely, to sort of escape. For a young Polish Jew in the 1940s, that is astonishing–genuinely miraculous. Yet Jakob’s obsession with human history is painted quite straightforwardly, as that of someone who has experienced every one of the Holocaust’s horrors. I think a more interesting novel lurks in the cracks: how do you convince yourself that your grief is legitimate when you have been so relatively lucky, so protected? He longs for his parents, and especially his older sister Bella, but never is there a trace of survivor’s guilt or regret for having outlived them. It’s an odd omission.

About two-thirds of the way through the novel, Jakob disappears. His place as narrator is taken, instead, by a young man called Ben, a former student of his friend Maurice Salman and an admirer of Jakob’s poetry. Ben is working on a thesis that combines meteorology with literature. His inner monologue is almost indistinguishable from Jakob’s, although in his case, it is his parents, not he himself, who fled the Nazis. Nevertheless, he too is vaguely thoughtful about Human Nature, Love and Poetry:

When we say we’re looking for a spiritual adviser, we’re really looking for someone to tell us what to do with our bodies. Decisions of the flesh.

It’s the sort of declaration that immediately brings out the bolshie pedant in me (“We are? Really? Gosh.”) It’s also frustrating because it’s not entirely clear what Ben is doing in this novel. Perhaps it’s as simple as symmetry: he functions to let us know how a man terribly affected by history can turn his pain into beauty and pass that beauty on to the next generation. But in that case, genuine symmetry would be an advantage, and Ben isn’t introduced halfway through Fugitive Pieces; the novel is most of the way over before he takes over. It’s disorientating. Meanwhile, the women in his life (thoughtful, teeth-achingly sweet Naomi, and exotic, carefree Petra) are both two-dimensional. They’re also just as difficult to differentiate from the women in Jakob’s life (carefree Alex; understanding Michaela) as Ben is from Jakob himself.

Still, there are some moments where Michaels succeeds in communicating directly and painfully. Jakob imagines his sister Bella keeping her spirits up in the camps by silently playing her beloved Beethoven on the side of her bunk at night. Ben discovers that his parents had two children before him who were both lost to genocide. When he was born, they feared losing him so much that they decided not to name him, hoping God’s eye would pass him by: “Ben” isn’t short for “Benjamin”; it means, in Hebrew, simply “son”. On the first night of his flight, Jakob thinks he can see the spirits of the recently murdered leaving the earth, and believes he must give his mother’s soul permission to go: it wants desperately to ascend, but it wants even more desperately to stay with him. Moments like these are conveyed quite simply, and the simplicity underscores their power. It’s the overwriting–reaching for philosophical significance and tipping into insensibility–that makes the book less effective.

Fugitive Pieces won the Women’s [Orange] Prize for Fiction in 1997. It forms part of my project to read all of the past Women’s Prize winners, inspired by the Best of the Best event a few weeks ago.